Young Raju had always had antennae. He surmised, made deductions, never asked questions. It was not thought proper for a child to do so. A child must always be ready to listen and obey. There was one exception. Pradeep loved to reminisce about the things that had happened to the family, and Raju wishing to know all the details was encouraged to question him then. At an early age he had already sensed his grandfather Jayant’s passion for Dadima Shanti. No one had told him. The adults used to joke and say that people should be careful when the boy was around. If you mislaid a glance, they said, the boy would pick it up and learn secrets from it. He knew the meaning of two quick blinks of the eye, a hardly imperceptible turn of the head as an eye-contact avoidance measure, the slightest hesitation at the start of a sentence. He had guessed that it was a one-sided affair, and that it had never entirely evaporated over the years, like when a pan of water has boiled dry, there is always a faint white trace left at the bottom. He never openly talked about these things, but he made oblique comments which everybody understood, thought daring. However, their indulgence for the much-loved seven-year old made them pretend that they had not picked upon the offending allusions. He knew that Grandpa Jayant was devoted to Grandma Jyoti, and that he made her as happy as it was possible to be, but the fact that he fussed a little too much over when Shanti was around was not lost on him.
A word picked up here and there had informed the boy that from the very beginning, his grandpa had been dubious about granny Shanti’s second marriage to the inept Kishore, the inept suitor that the Musselman Murtaza had introduced her to. Murtaza was an intriguing presence in the family. Musselman folks were looked upon with suspicion, but not him. He was perplexed and questioned Pradeep who told him what a comfort and help the man had been to the family in their needy days. But it went both ways, his father told him. In the beginning, he was a big support to Grandma Shanti, but at times he needed her help too. And with pride, Pradeep told the boy the story of how once, when he was in a real fix, Murtaza had come to Shanti who was then rolling in money and asked for a loan. Pradeep, so full of admiration for his mother marvelled at her gratitude. However her immediate response to the man who had done her a hundred favours had been negative. She had claimed that she did not have any money at the moment, but perhaps in a month… Pradeep remembered how Murtaza had said nothing and had left a broken man, for she was his last resort, and he was facing ruin. But you said Dadima was a grateful person, the boy had said. Yes, yes, listen to the rest, Pradeep had said.
In the middle of the night, Shanti came to wake her son up, and with tears in her eyes had explained that she could not sleep, so much was her conscience troubling her. How could I act in such an ungrateful manner to one who has always been a sincere and dependable friend? I am turning into a bad person, she had said as tears rolled down her cheeks. How can you say that, Ma Jaan, Pradeep had protested. I am becoming a miser, valuing money above my own friends. Anyway, she had given him a large sum of money, more than Murtaza had asked for, and asked him to set out in the middle of the night to go to Murtaza’s.
‘Explain to him that the moment he had left, whatshisname came in and settled his debts in full,’ she had said. Such elegance, your Grandma.
Anyway Granny and Kishore had married and Jayant had wished that the new husband would help her find the happiness she deserved, but he had known from the start that he was not the man for her. He had even been sorry when the poor fellow, unable to settle on the island, and clearly accepting that the marriage had failed, finally returned to Calcutta. He was greatly relieved that Shanti had taken his departure in her stride.
Grandad Jayant never wasted time pining for the woman he had loved since time began. Once, he started telling about a dream he had had of their Sundarban days, featuring his friend the old Raju and Dadima going down the Matla River, and he had blushed and blinked and could not continue. Raju guessed that devoted as he was to Jyoti, this passion, unlike the extinct Trou aux Cerfs was a dormant one.
Raju, without seemingly listening to the endless stories of hardship and hard work, knew how proud the two grandparents were of their prosperity. Jayant never failed to mention who his inspiration was.
‘If Bhabi Shanti who is only a woman, could accomplish so much, I told myself, I should aim to achieve half of what she has done,’ he said merrily, tapping the space on his upturned fist between his index and middle finger of his left hand with the pointing finger of the right, producing a faint rhythmic sound resonating with the quick movements of his head left to right, but he instantly added, ‘I say only a woman, but what a woman!’
He too had also managed to buy a small plot of land to begin with, and this had enabled him to make good money which he had used to buy a small sugar cane field, but as money poured into his coffers, he kept buying more. He was comfortable, but was not in the same league as her, and refused any comparison. Whilst the far richer woman counted every cent she spent, Jayant never hesitated to spend lavishly on his loved ones. He showered upon Jyoti and his daughter Prabha all manner of fineries, silk saris and gold bangles, earrings and necklaces, spectacular things that he loved them to wear, but he himself would never hear of changing his simple dhotis, coarse cotton kurtas and cheap leather sandals for more expensive ones.
Shanti never gave up working in the fields, mainly because she had always loved the open air, but above all, she loved being in charge. Besides she had discovered that when one kept a close eye on the workers, it did wonders for productivity. On his part, Jayant was content to let others do the work for which he paid them reasonable wages, and he left them in peace, and was not unhappy with the result.
His house in Floréal was quite extravagant compared to Shanti’s in Rivière Sêche. She had kept the original structure and simply built extensions, and it looked a bit ramshackle. It could have benefited from a lick of paint but Shanti said that she hated extravagance. Raju thought that its chaotic exterior was what gave the place its unexpected charm. Whilst she was never really happy, never ceasing to mourn her lost husband, Jayant considered himself specially blessed. Bhagwan has thought it fit to shower worldly riches upon my unworthy self, he often said. His generosity was proverbial, although Shanti said that he was too credulous and would surely live to regret his trust in people he hardly knew.
He was surprised that being disappointed in love had not turned him into an embittered grump.
Young Raju flourished in this atmosphere where love reigned supreme. He knew that he was loved and cosseted by all, needed no encouragement to exercise his great capacity to tell stories. The old adage that children were to be seen and not heard, did not apply to him. He invented stories, mixed them with age-old tales and adages, created new words, loved to make rhymes — not all of them silly — and everybody had a good laugh. He revelled in this adulation. What the adults loved more than anything, was when the boy narrated the story of the wedding of his parents, making them all scream with delight when he claimed with a serious face that he was there, even if he had not been born yet. Those who listened to him half believed that he was indeed.
Grandpa Jayant, having sold some cows for much more than he had expected on the previous day, woke up one morning, convinced that Bhagwan was planning to further his bliss. He had always loved young Pradeep as a son, but his ambition to make him into a real son not having worked, he had always entertained what he thought was an idle dream of making him his son-in-law. Idle, not only because the boy was seven years older than his Prabha, but also because he knew that Shanti had every right to wish for someone from a better family. Shanti would interrupt at this point, blush and vehemently deny this. I was the one who had instructed the Pandit to approach Jayant to sound him on the possible union between my Pradeep and his Prabha, she said, forcing a little laugh.
Jayant thought he might burst with happiness. This union was going to be a symbol of the near mystic link between their two families. He felt that it was like bringing his old friend Raju back to life in some ways. The latter had been unreserved in his love for him. In their Sunderban days, he had been a much admired youngster and could have had any number of friends, but he had chosen the younger, lowly orphan boy. There had never been any cloud over their relationship. Although Raju was older, against custom, he never once had a harsh word for his younger friend, never belittled him, never ordered him about. Only after having Raju dancing merrily in his head did he think of the young people who were going to be joined together in holy matrimony.
‘Arrey, Panditji,’ Grandpa was supposed to have said, ‘the marriage between our two children, is the apotheosis of my life. I can never experience anything as glorious, it is as if my soul has gone out of my body and is dancing over my head and then re-entering it again. I can hear bells, angelic children laughing, singing Oms. Our two families coming together is like Lord Rama and Sita being reunited after the vanquishing of the evil Ravanna. Of course I am delighted to give my lovely Prabha to the son of my better-than-brother Raju. Tell Shanti Bhabi, tell the whole world! We’ll have the best, the most grandiose wedding that this island will ever see. In fifty years people will still talk about it. I was there, at the wedding of Jayant’s daughter Prabha and Raju’s son Pradeep, they will say. It was like a marriage between a Maharajah and a Princess.’
The boy narrator knew all about the todo between Shanti who had been against expensive jewellery, and Jayant with his no expense spared attitude.
‘The necklace that Ma wore on the wedding day,’ he said, without revealing the fact that it was Jayant who had finally footed the jeweller’s massive bill, ‘was so heavy that she had to make an effort to keep her neck upright as she walked seven times round the fire with my Pitaji.’
‘And Nanabaji spent many a sleepless night wracking his brains about how and where to find a white horse for the groom,’ the boy narrator said. Jayant laughed and said that he had known from the start that the white man Monsieur de la Varicelle to whom he usually sold his entire cane harvest would oblige him in that, albeit in the hope of getting some small discount later. Dadima Shanti was against a big wedding, but Grandpa Jayant said that it was the bride’s father’s call, and that happiness could not be counted in terms of money…
Two whole weeks before the big day, two baskets of the choicest mehndi arrived in Floréal, were promptly crushed by the servants on the spice stone crusher, and all the women and girls had their hands hennaed, a process which meant them holding the mushy paste in the palm of their hands for one whole night. Even the boys were indulged, but only to the extent that they were only allowed to have the tip of their small fingers painted.
Jayant had recently acquired a vast one-acre uncultivated field next door to his dwelling, for which he had big plans, but immediately after the union was contemplated, he halted the plans. He was going to use this maidan for the wedding festivities.
He arranged for the field to be shorn of all its wild growths, and made his plans. He wanted a huge marquee to seat his three hundred guests. He ordered a cartload of seating mats, hand-woven from a craftsman in Vacoas. Next to the main tent he erected a smaller tent to house the musicians and natakwallahs in drag, then some distance away, because of the smoke, two similar tents, one, exclusively for the preparation of the many dishes which he had planned for, and next to it, the eating area.
‘And what a menu Nanabaji had elaborated!’ And the unborn narrator made a mouthwatering list. The Musselman family friend Murtaza had married his only daughter to a bhandari who had only recently arrived from the home country, whose ancestors had been cooks for the Maharajah of Bihar, and Grandpa Jayant had secured his services. Some family friends had frowned. ‘Why use the services of a Musselman?’ They had asked, ‘These people eat cow.’ But Jayant had assured them that the Pandit, to whom Murtaza had once made a substantial loan had given his approval.
Jayant inspired by a dream, designed a decoration made of six bamboo poles criss-crossing each other near the top and tied at that point, flaunting coloured pennants in the breeze. Dozens of these were planted at regular intervals all over the maidan. Everybody agreed that it was a most felicitous idea.
The betel-chewing Gheevalla had only one eye, but in his trade, it was not sight but smell which was of the essence. The man did not judge the quantity of the salt needed for a mix by looking at it, rather he smelled a handful, and decided there and then if he needed more or less. Smell and taste. It is said that his taste buds were of such refinement, that if he but sniffed a sauce, he could tell you if the onions had been cut lengthwise or sideways. Gheevalla demanded a number of helpers, and they worked for two days and two nights to prepare the ingredients. The flour had to be mixed for the puris, and the kneading was done by three amateur wrestlers sitting round a large wooden vat which was large enough for a tall man to lie in the middle without having to bend his knees. Besan or chickpea flour for the pakoras was processed in a large degh, a cauldron. The bandhari took great care not to divulge the secrets that had kept Maharajah’s palates entranced for centuries, and would prepare all the ingredients in a corner of the tent. If one of his assistants but inadvertently walked in, he would benefit from the full force of his ire.
Grandpa must have bought a whole barrel of ghee, fifty chicken, two goats, five baskets of the freshest rougets, reputed to be the best that the ocean nurtured, six hundred eggs, two sacks of flour, a sack of dal. Vegetables, peas, bindhis, tomatoes, baighan, gobi, dudhis were delivered to the Floréal house in carts. As were baskets of pineapple and lychees, fruits which they had hardly ever eaten back home. A number of three-women teams crouched on the mats were merrily cleaning and cutting the greens, humming and telling jokes. One group were shelling the peas, another peeling the potatoes, yet another scraping the bindhis. ‘Bindhi must never be washed,’ Gheevalla had decreed, ‘they must only be scraped with a clean knife.’
We children were discouraged from coming into the working areas, Raju went on with a serious face, but nothing could stop us. What we liked most was the spectacle offered by the pineapple peeler. She was all alone on her mat, and grabbing a pineapple by the crown with her left hand, deftly turning it upside down, and wielding the sharpest knife in the house in her right hand, like an expert swordsman his sword, she would cause the fruit to swivel round, bring the knife near it, and let it do the work for her, as if by magic. The denuded fruit was left with very small hairy and brown craters all over the surface, where the seeds resided, and it made our mouths water with anticipation as the juice dripped away, leaving the atmosphere filled with its appetising aroma. We gaped in wonderment as the old lady, holding the peeled fruit by the crown, upside down, made incisions round the offending cavities by means of quick movements centred round her wrists. Only after having lopped off the bulk of the crown, leaving just enough of it for handling, was the fruit deemed ready for the degustation of Nanabaji’s esteemed guests.
One man had the onerous task of keeping the many fires going. Special rocks had been chosen, chiselled with great care so as to hold the massive copper deghs, and stacks of dried filaos wood were in readiness for the fire. A holy man seated under a solitary tree kept chanting all day to ensure that rain did not spoil the party. Bhagwan must have heard him, for the sun shone all day long that day.
The whole place was turned into a hive of activity since much before dawn. Even the children were up before the cock started crowing. As both Shanti and Jayant had friends from their indenture days who were now dispersed over the island, they had already arrived a few days earlier and Jayant had moved heaven and earth to provide them with all the comforts that money could buy. Grandma Shanti would have preferred that the money which had been extravagantly wasted in a show of vanity had been given to the young couple to buy them some more land.
‘But as we all know, she never interferes.’ said the child narrator winking.
Although Jayant possessed banana groves, he was not happy with the state of their leaves. My guests need dark green waxy leaves to eat from. The best, he had said, and Murtaza had scoured the island from north to south to find the right banana leaves, fit to serve a Maharajah on, and they were to arrive just in time to preserve their freshness.
Early in the morning oxcarts began to pull in the through the gates of the Floréal mansion. Pails of water and bales of fodder had been waiting for the hungry bullocks. Grandpa had thought of everything.
‘That boy,’ said Grandma Jyoti, ‘must surely have been there, how does he know all those details? He must be the reincarnation of someone who was there. I wonder who he was.’ She had said this a few times already and nobody paid any attention.
As the ladies started coming down their calèches, the jingle of their jewellery provided additional music to what the paid musicians and singers were rehearsing in their tent. The natural colours of the green fields and the many flowers growing upon them tried hard to match the colours of the ladies’ saris and the fluttering pennants. The arriving guests hugged and cried tears of joy. Some had not met since they had landed from the Startled Fawn.
It was impossible to stop the spread of smoke, but gradually it became filled with the aroma of Gheevalla’s spices, and so nobody minded. Verily that man was a Magician of the culinary arts. The crowd collectively began to feel their insides rumble with anticipation. How were they going to last through the unending ceremony, with the Pandit going on forever, with all the aromas hovering in the air?
‘Arrey choop, beta,’ admonished Grandma Shanti, ‘a wedding is not just about eating, the Pandit needs to beg Bhagwan for so many blessings.’
Anyway people had cakes and things to eat before, and lots of rose-flavoured faloodas and lassis, nimbu pani with massive quantities of white sugar, hand-pressed mango juice in which crisp burnished gold onions fried in ghee floated… but this was only for the more important guests.’
And he spoke of pyramids of golden laddoos, pink peras, green barfis, all covered in gold leaves. They were so pretty to look at in all their resplendent colours that the guests felt guilty at having to eat this beautiful sight away.
The ceremony lasted a long time indeed, the boy said. Grandma Shanti’s eyes became filled with tears whilst the newly-weds were walking round the fire seven times, the bridegroom leading the bride, as she relived her own nuptials, seeing herself in the bride’s place and Grandpa Raju in front of her. The old lady acquiesced.
Grandpa Jayant also had tears in his eyes, but the young narrator knew, although he did not say that the tears of joy were because as he was fantasising about being the groom to Shanti’s bride.
Everybody was greatly relieved when the Pandit finally fell asleep at the drone of his own voice, or maybe he too was troubled by the aroma of almonds and raisins, saffron and cardamon, mixed with cinnamon and jeera, dhanya and methi, and decided to cut short the ceremony, the boy said brushing aside half-hearted rebukes for his supposed lack of respect for the saintly man.
Half the guests were taken to the Music and Dance marquee where men in drag were dancing to the tune of a harmonium player and a singer of bhojpuri songs, venting their acid but good-natured wit on guests picked at random. Jayant had even dared engage the services of a couple of Negro musician and singer team who were instant successes with their ségas.
In the food tent, the Wizard of the Spices and his team had already dished out generous portions of his meticulously prepared fare on the banana leaves, spread evenly on the palm frond mats.
‘The guests ate so quickly they bit their fingers,’ young Raju said, ‘some accidentally put food in their nose and in their eyes and others bit their tongues.’ His audience was in stitches on hearing this. The elderly nodded.
As Jayant had been over-generous in his estimate of the quantity of food that was needed, Granny Shanti was not surprised when more than half of the food prepared was untouched even after people claimed that they had gorged themselves to their utmost limit. They had to distribute the leftovers to the grateful population of Floréal village, attracted by the fragrance of the offerings.
His audience would often question him about the white horse, at which, young Raju would frown and to cackles of delight would say, ‘Why ask me, how would I know, I wasn’t even born.’
It was true that he was having difficulty being born! Pradeep and Prabha did indeed make a lovely couple. They were both easygoing and it did not take long for them to fall in love with each other. Baba Pradeep would have liked Shanti Granny to leave the running of the business to him, but although she was not as tireless as she had been, she insisted on planning everything herself. Only when I die, which will be soon, she told the boy’s impatient Baba, will you be able to take the reins from my hand.
‘Arrey Ma Jaan,’ Pradeep said without malice, ‘I fear that even after you die, your ghost will refuse to let go of those reins.’
‘Sharp wit just like your father, darling boy, just like your father.’ Few things gave her more pleasure than to be able to discover traits in her son which she could claim had been inherited from the anointed Raju.
But after three miscarriages which people attributed to a number of causes, insufficient offerings to the Gods, other people’s malevolence, sorcery, he managed to force his way into the world. He was named Rajendra after his missing grandfather. He was a healthy little thing, drinking his mother’s milk with gusto.
He grew up into a handsome little boy who loved nothing better than singing songs he made himself. He was always humming, moving his head all the time as one does when listening to music, except that in his case the music was inside his head. At an early age, he impressed everybody — terrified some — by making unexpected remarks. He was not yet four when they were on the bank of the Mesnil river one day. He was watching some fish swim in water so clear that one could see its bottom, and he said to Prabha, ‘Ma, I can see the bottom of this water like I can see how much I love you.’ Nobody understood what this meant, but they liked it. Baba, he said to Pradeep once, when the latter was deep in thought, your forehead, he looks like the waves on the water. He had thousands of questions: do trees hurt when people break off branches or cut them down? Does the milk you drink turn red in your body and become blood? And of course he loved making up stories and silly verses.
When a labourer made him a small flute out of a piece of bamboo, and taught him how to play it, he began saying that he was a boy, he was called Raju, had two eyes, two arms, two feet, a mouth and one flute. He made his own tunes and sang childish songs he made himself to go with alternate bouts of flute-playing. He loved cattle, and could spend hours playing with them, talking to them.
When he was three, Grandpa Jayant got him a teacher so he could learn to read and write Hindi so he could read stories from the Ramayana, but in no time at all he able to read faster than Masterji!
At nine he begged Dadi Shanti to let him take the cattle out grazing, on his own, and it soon became a routine. He would take the small herd out every morning, at crack of dawn — he slept very little — and lead them to pastures on the bank of Rivière du Mesnil belonging to the family. He would talk to each cow and bull personally, telling them not to go out of his sight, to eat and drink as much as they needed to. He would then sit down under the shade of a big tamarind tree, facing the river so he could see the water flowing, take his flute out and play on it, oblivious of time and place.
Never did anybody have to say a harsh word to him. Everybody said that he was common sense wrapped in kindness. He loved the world and the whole world loved him back. He could not remember ever being really sad, and was surprised one day when playing a melancholy tune he had made up on his flute, tears began to trickle down his cheeks. Until that day, he never knew that tears were salty, he would say. He rather liked that melancholic feeling. It is the sort of sadness that does not make you unhappy, he thought.
He had just gone seventeen when he was out with the cows one morning, playing his flute, singing a song. Suddenly his attention became drawn to something which had moved on the water. He held his flute suspended in the air, level with his face, almost like a statue and saw what he thought was a large ebony fish swimming. He stood up and went nearer and like in the stories he had heard, the fish turned into a princess. A shiny black ebony princess.
She came out of the water without seeing him, little pearls dripping from her glistening body, as drops of water caught the sunlight. In the light of the mid-afternoon sun, the picture was an enchantment, and he kept it stored in his mind’s eye. He looked at her, entranced, his hand holding the flute, frozen in front of his lips. The princess was still unaware of his presence, and jumped in the air twice on her long slim legs so as to shake off the water clinging to her body, her small but fully formed breasts shaking in unison. He opened his eyes wide at the sight of the shiny jet black hair which luxuriated between her legs, and it gave him a sexual frisson, the like of which he had never experienced before. Without thinking he put the flute to his mouth and began playing a new tune, as a spontaneous tribute to the beauty of the apparition, the best tune that he had ever composed, he thought. The Ebony Fish slowly lifted her head towards him, unafraid, and watched him play, she too, entranced. Was it love at first sight? He wanted to stop playing so he could approach her and talk to her, but found it impossible. It was as if somebody else had taken possession of his body, and was playing his flute. All he did was listen to the tune he was producing effortlessly, in rapture. He did not even notice when the girl started running away. He wondered whether he should run after her, but thought that it would be scare her.
When he reached home, he was still under the influence of that vision of loveliness, and did not hear when he was spoken to. He had to see this girl again, make sure that she was no spirit or ghost. It did not take long, for next day, the girl, now dressed in a colourful cotton dress with large blue flowers re-appeared, this time on firm ground. She stopped at some distance from the tamarind tree, as if waiting for him to make the first move, and he did.
‘I saw you yesterday,’ he said in faltering kreol. He was used to speaking bhojuri.
‘You speak funny,’ she said and giggled. For a while, they just stared at each other in silence.
‘You want me to play,’ he asked in hardly recognisable kreol, which made the girl giggle again. He recognised that it was not a mocking laugh, it was just a manifestation of her embarrassment.
He was delighted that she was a proper person and not a spirit. She told him that she was called Hyacinthe, and that she lived with her mother and little brother in Valentina, pointing in its direction with her chin.
‘Are you planning to go for a swim today?’ he asked, and she cackled with laughter.
‘Arrey, what’s funny?’
‘Maman, she said to be careful with boys.’
Anyway he soon found out that her great grandmother was a freed slave. Her father was a white man, which was surprising, as her skin was completely black, although her frizzy hair was dark brown. Raju would find out later that the father had been a colon, and had seduced her mother Hortense, when the latter was sixteen. She was the child of Agathe, the daughter that Midala never knew of, as he was separated from the mother, Matamba, by de Fleury. Hortense had submitted to the colon because she knew that she had no choice. She was afraid of getting a beating if she had resisted his advances, and that she would have been kicked out of the établissement where she had a roof over her head. Hyacinthe’s father did not for a moment think that he had done anything wrong. These lewd black women, he told his drinking companions, were balls of fire, asking for it, and he was not made of wood! And if it was a sin to put pressure upon them, you could always go to confession. The priest was a good friend. Still, when the baby arrived, he agreed to provide for her, made Hortense a kept woman, and later had another child with her, the almost white boy Armand.
‘What I cannot understand is that Maman loves that horrible man,’ she told Raju.
On another occasion she told him that if Missié Papa, as she called him, tried anything funny with her, which she knew he would some day, she would stick a knife in him. The innocent Raju found that hard to believe, but she explained that she had heard Missié Papa and Maman argue one night, and he had said that only a fool would not wish to enjoy the first cauliflower harvested on his patch. But Maman who was always finding excuses for him, said he was joking.
Raju was seeing Hyacinthe almost every day now. They were head over heels in love with each other, but neither dared touch each other. At night Raju found it difficult to go to sleep, as he could not shake off images of the black princess emerging from the water. He was in a constant state of sexual arousal, and thought that unless they did something about it, he would die.
It was almost three months later that things happened. He was waiting for her under the tamarind tree and when she came towards him, he reached out for her, and she melted into his open arms. He pressed her to his feverish body caressing her back, her waist, and her round soft behind, and they rolled on the ground in frenzied excitement. The complicit cows looked at them placidly. He lifted up her skirt and touched her intimacy and discovered that she was… melting. They undressed and admired each other’s bodies, stroking each other, kissing, and the rest happened like the most natural thing in the world.
Raju knew that he wanted no other woman on this earth, but he also knew that it was not going to be easy. For such a union to take place, he would need not only Pradeep and Prabha’s approval, but Dadi Shanti’s and Grandpa Jayant’s as well. But he imagined that as they loved him and would want the best for him, all he needed was to convince them of the strength of the Ebony Fish’s love for him. Perhaps it might be best to say nothing until he was certain of their approval.
They continued seeing each other secretly, with only the cows and the crows as witnesses. Their love for each other increased everyday. At night he would lie awake in the dark and invoke images of her. Her egg-shaped head. An egg in which her love for me was hatched. Her breasts. Two soldiers bearing the keys with which to open the gates of passion only for me. Between her legs, her chhodd, a magic furnace, which though hot one, was capable of putting out my fire. Her mouth, with which she speaks those unspoken words of love when we kiss.
Suddenly one day Dadi Shanti said to Raju that she wanted to have a word with him. He knew, by the tone in her voice and by her effort not to let their eyes meet, that she knew everything.
‘Arrey Dadi, the cows have been telling you stories about me,’ he said attempting to bring a touch of light relief in what he suspected was going to be an ordeal.
‘Sit down!’ she ordered, and when he had done so, she looked at him in the eyes and said, ‘Are you trying to bring shame on the family?’
‘Arrey dadima, why are you saying this? What shame?’
‘You know what I am talking about —’
‘Yes, I know, but what I don’t know is why is it a shame?’
‘Do you wish me to order the wood for my funeral pyre?’
‘Dadima, you should be happy for me…’
‘Chhoop,’ she ordered. Silence, not a word from you.
‘Your father is too distraught to talk to you himself, so he asked me to tell you his decision.’
‘You must stop seeing this black prostitute. Oh these black devils! They are cannibals, they eat people, you know.’
‘Arrey Dadi,’ said Raju hiding his anger at hearing the woman he loved called that, ‘Hyacinthe is a sweet innocent girl… please don’t use bad names for her.’
‘So she is not a prostitute eh? Then you tell me who is a prostitute? Your mother, her mother, my lost Sundari, me?’ Raju who had never been exposed to family conflict, could understand neither the words nor the anger, and was too shocked to say anything. Shanti took this as acquiescence.
‘You know her mother is a bad woman, unmarried with two kids. She has a lover, a married man. She is a kept woman… a boy like you… they will turn you into a… a… pimp.’ Raju was too angry to hear any more, and he stood up, stared at her and turned his back on her, about to walk away. She gasped with disbelief.
‘See, she has already turned you against your own family… how dare you turn your back on me when I am talking to you?’ He stopped and attempted to keep calm… and said, ‘Sorry.’ He had no idea what to say, how to react.
‘Sit down, beta,’ Shanti said, in an attempt at pacifying the boy. She was shocked by the show of rebellion from someone who had been so docile all his life.
‘Beta, it’s for your own good, we all want what’s best for you, you know that.’ Raju pursed his lips and nodded absently.
‘Have you seen a cat and a dog form a couple? For a good Hindu boy from a good family and a black slave woman it is the same. It is against the laws of nature.’ Raju shook his head in disbelief, what sort of argument was this? Why was it against nature? She is a woman and I am a man, and we love each other, isn’t that all it needs to be about. He said nothing.
‘Your father was thinking of whipping you until you saw reason. Now I can tell him to be reasonable, since you have seen the error of your ways,’ she said happily. ‘Don’t worry, he will not touch you,’ she said, adding with the ghost of a smile, ‘or he will have me to deal with.’
He said nothing and left. He could not remember even a mild rebuke from his beloved Dadima, or from any adult. He had never experienced even once, any conflict with anybody. This massive eruption shook the very foundation of his sanity. He went into his bedroom shaking like he had a fever. He sat on his bed, taking his head in both hands, and unsuccessfully willed himself to calm down. Tears of frustration began streaming down his cheeks. All the bad words of the grandmother began to reverberate in his head. Prostitute. Kept Woman. Black Devils. Cannibals. Why hate so much? Oh Hyacinthe, I want you here, I want to take you in my arms and swear to you that nothing they can say will make me love you less. The silent crying turned into sobs, and he found he had no control over them.
Shanti heard them and was alarmed. She too began crying, for she hated to see the boy unhappy, but it was something she had to do, there was no choice. Raju was still a boy and needed her protection. She sent for Jayant and Prabha, and also the Pandit.
Raju must have sobbed himself to sleep, for next thing he knew, his mother Prabha gently tiptoed in his room, sat on the bed beside him, took his head in her lap and rocked him like a baby. My poor boy is so unhappy, she said. Raju cheered up. Mother is the only one who understands me, Bhagwan be praised. I thought that I had no ally, there’s one, somebody who has loved me without reserve all my life.
‘Ma Jaan, Dadima said such bad things about Hyacinthe.’
‘I know, beta, I know.’
‘You will talk to them, wont you, Ma?’ She smiled.
‘Come, they want to talk to you,’ she said. So they must have seen reason. Prabha helped him get up, and mother and son walked into the front room where Shanti received guests and clients. He was both surprised and pleased to see Baba and Jayant dada, but not the Pandit. Not Dadima either.
Jayant looked at the boy lovingly, and tapping the space next to him with his hand on the sofa invited him to come sit there. He was grateful to him, went to sit next to him, and he, moved a bit closer to his grandson, putting his arm round his shoulder, as a show of love. Pradeep nodded at him benevolently. Pandit Naipaul had a saucer finely balanced on the three fingers of his left hand, with the cup of hot chai in his right hand, his little finger raised slightly. He poured some tea from the cup into the saucer, deftly raised it to his lips and sipped its content noisily, making an appreciative sound as the spicy and sweet liquid got sucked in his mouth.
‘You make the best chai I have tasted since I came to this island, Ben, just the right amount of ilaiti, not one pinch of catcam more…’ Dadima’s lips twitched into the travesty of a smile.
‘My boy,’ he said, moving the saucer away, I understand that these ungodly black savages have been doing their jadoo on you.’ Raju winced at this intelligence. What magic did he mean?
‘You seem surprised, beta, but, these people are worse than Untouchables!’ Then he stopped suddenly and seemed deep in thought. Nobody said anything for a bit. The Pandit then shook his head, and continued.
‘No, I am telling a lie, they can’t be worse than Chhamars, nobody is worse than those filthy dogs.’ He had to stop himself spitting on the floor. ‘But you get my meaning?’ Not everybody agreed with his assessment, but no one argued with him. He continued.
‘They are filthy and ungodly, and whenever they want anything, instead of working for it, or buying it, they try to get it by jadoo!’ Raju frowned, unable to say anything. The Pandit pursed his lips, and recanted, ‘No, they are definitely worse than Chammars, no doubt about that.’ Everybody seemed to be weighing the degree of badness of those two accursed groups when the holy man spoke again.
‘Yes, yes, we know you are an innocent child, and know nothing of these practices. Unfortunately our own Gods are often powerless against their demons, for as you know, they worship the devil.’
‘Arrey, stop it, what are you saying? You are talking a lot of rot. You should be ashamed of saying things like that. Where’s your proof?’
‘He’s never raised his voice to adults before,’ said Prabha in an attempt to salvage the reputation of her beloved son. ‘Beta, why are you talking like this all of a sudden?’
‘It must be their devil speaking through him,’ said the Pandit flushed with vindication. Pradeep was in shock. He stood up, turned to his son, and slapped him twice on the face.
‘You make me so ashamed, is this how I taught you to speak to your elders.’
‘You promised you wouldn’t raise a hand to him, Pradeep.’ That was Shanti.
It took a few minutes before calm was restored.
‘You must promise that you will never see that black witch ever again,’ Pradeep said solemnly. Raju stared ahead of him saying nothing.
‘Did you hear what your Baba said, Raju?’ asked Shanti severely.
‘Speak when you are spoken to,’ urged Prabha.
‘If you refuse, then you cannot be my son, you cannot live under the same roof as me,’ said Pradeep with tears in his eyes. The Pandit shook his head and tut tutted, indicating that Pradeep should not have said that.
‘Panditji, I mean this,’ the father said defiantly.
‘No, let me handle this,’ tut tutted the Pandit, convinced of his own superior wisdom and savoir-faire. He took a deep breath, and everybody waited to see the difference between his wisdom and the sad father’s clumsy approach.
‘For your own good, because we all love you, we cannot let you stay under the same roof as your parents and your Dadima, unless you agree to end all contact with that impure black prostitute.’ He smiled with self-satisfaction.
‘Promise, beta,’ urged Prabha. Raju said nothing.
‘We will find you the prettiest, whitest Hindu girl on the island, a real peri.’
‘I think we can take that as a yes. Right?’ said the Pandit exhibiting the smile of a man who has delivered the goods, convinced of being the worthy recipient of the admiration of the rest of the world. Raju still said nothing but kept staring vacantly in front of him. Everybody seemed to be speaking at the same time, it was like a swarm of flies buzzing. He shook his head violently, and immediately silence was re-established.
Raju’s whole world had collapsed over him. Yesterday he was the most cherished person in the family, in the whole village, loved and admired by all, and today he was being chased out of his father’s house. He stood up, rushed into his room, took his flute and rushed out. Jayant and Pradeep rushed after him, but the Pandit stopped him.
‘That will undo all my good work,’ he said, ‘he will come back chastened, where can he go?’
But Raju was not chastened and did not come back. He walked like a madman not knowing where he was going, until exhausted he leaned against a banyan tree and with the full moon in his face and went to sleep.
Next day, he went to Hyacinthe’s little house with the corrugated iron roof in Valentina, and the poor girl was alarmed at seeing what looked like the ghost of her beloved Raju. He had a fever, and Hortense looked after him, putting cold compresses on his brow, gently humming songs from the old country that Grandma Matamba had taught her, whilst Hyacinthe massaged his head lovingly. Missié Papa arrived unexpectedly in the afternoon, and Hortense explained to him who the boy was. The latter had rested and was able to speak, although he had difficulty with the kreol. To his surprise, the white man said that the best thing would be for Raju to come with him to the other side of the island, in Souillac, where his boss had his estate, and needed workers. My daughter can come with you if she wants. She did. I will follow my lover to the other side of Hell if he asks me, she said. The young couple never married, but they had a happy life.
A whole year passed and Pradeep found him after searching everywhere. He said that he had forgiven him and begged him to come back home. Everybody wants you back in Rivière Sêche, he said. Raju was pleased to hear that, for he loved his family and would have never wished to be parted from them.
‘Yes, Baba, of course, I do not want to break with my own flesh and blood.’
‘Any time, my boy, any time.’
‘As soon as my little baby is born,’ he said, ‘I will take him and my wife so the family can meet them. You will love the baby, Baba.’ Pradeep’s face changed colour exactly as black tea does when milk is added.
‘No, we cannot allow her in the house. What are you saying? She will soil it, I told you, they are worse than Chhamars.’
The baby boy born to the proud couple was named François. The grandparents never saw him. When he grew up, he married a Hindu orphan girl and had a son, Prakash, who was to become Gina’s lover and thus Katrina Crialese’s other grandfather.